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Friday, January 08, 2010


The morning after the Blasphemy Laws were introduced by Zia - much before they were made even worse under Nawaz - "Dawn" carried the news item that contained a list of Surah.Aayat (2.85, 2.136, 2.157, 4.65, 4.150, 4.152, 9.61) deemed to be the basis of the laws.

Having read the Qürãn frequently - and intently - while compiling some comparative religion documents and, again, while doing some cross-checking for Ziauddin Kirmani's Seerat-un-Nabi (considered controversial by many), I could not recall any parts that suggested a life sentence or a death penalty for blasphemy which, certainly, is considered in the holy book as a rude and annoying act and one that angers Allah.

To be sure that my memory was playing no tricks, I immediately checked up Abdullah Yusuf Ali's translation into English of each of these references, including the Aayats just before and after them (for they are numbered slightly differently in some translations). Later, just to be doubly sure, I also cross-checked with the very simple and readable translation by Fateh Mohammad Jullenderi.

I did realize, though, that very few others would left their breakfast tables, copying the Aayat numbers down somewhere, to check against their copies of the Qürãn lying (as expected!) in another room. It was, after all, work-time rush hour and, surely, the media was expected to have done it's homework. And, ohh the inconvenience of having to do the vüzoo - (now vüdhoo!) - for the tedious checking up, especially when one has already put on a suit.

Of course, there must have been those who thought of it and put it off till later … but such checking is rarely done once the moment has passed. In fact, being aware of this phenomenon is how politicians and the media often purposefully misquote things and get away with it. (The much-maligned Internet is far superior in this regard because, whenever the need occurs, it can instantly link you to other references.)

To say that I was puzzled by the incongruousness of the claims and the references cited for them would be an understatement. Here they are. Judge for yourself and figure out how they relate to Blasphemy and the Life/Death sentences:


2:84 And remember We took your covenant (to this effect): Shed no blood amongst you, nor turn out your own people from your homes: and this ye solemnly ratified, and to this ye can bear witness.

2:85 After this it is ye, the same people, who slay among yourselves, and banish a party of you from their homes; assist (Their enemies) against them, in guilt and rancour; and if they come to you as captives, ye ransom them, though it was not lawful for you to banish them. Then is it only a part of the Book that ye believe in, and do ye reject the rest? but what is the reward for those among you who behave like this but disgrace in this life?- and on the Day of Judgment they shall be consigned to the most grievous penalty. For God is not unmindful of what ye do.

2:86 These are the people who buy the life of this world at the price of the Hereafter: their penalty shall not be lightened nor shall they be helped.


2:135 They say: "Become Jews or Christians if ye would be guided (To salvation)." Say thou: "Nay! (I would rather) the Religion of Abraham the True, and he joined not gods with God."

2:136 Say ye: "We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to God (in Islam)."

2:137 So if they believe as ye believe, they are indeed on the right path; but if they turn back, it is they who are in schism; but God will suffice thee as against them, and He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.

(The portion in italic, incidentally, also affirms that the Qürãn lays down no death punishment for apostasy, for Allah Himself is going to dole out punishment for that sin.)


2:156 Who say, when afflicted with calamity: "To God We belong, and to Him is our return".

2:157 They are those on whom (Descend) blessings from God, and Mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.

2:158 Behold! Safa and Marwa are among the Symbols of God. So if those who visit the House in the Season or at other times, should compass them round, it is no sin in them. And if any one obeyeth his own impulse to good,- be sure that God is He Who recogniseth and knoweth.


4:64 We sent not an apostle, but to be obeyed, in accordance with the will of God. If they had only, when they were unjust to themselves, come unto thee and asked God's forgiveness, and the Apostle had asked forgiveness for them, they would have found God indeed Oft-returning, Most Merciful.

4:65 But no, by the Lord, they can have no (real) Faith, until they make thee judge in all disputes between them, and find in their souls no resistance against Thy decisions, but accept them with the fullest conviction.

4:66 If We had ordered them to sacrifice their lives or to leave their homes, very few of them would have done it: But if they had done what they were (actually) told, it would have been best for them, and would have gone farthest to strengthen their (faith);

4.150 and 4.152

4:149 Whether ye publish a good deed or conceal it or cover evil with pardon, verily God doth blot out (sins) and hath power (in the judgment of values).
4:150 Those who deny God and His apostles, and (those who) wish to separate God from His apostles, saying: "We believe in some but reject others": And (those who) wish to take a course midway,

4:151 They are in truth (equally) unbelievers; and we have prepared for unbelievers a humiliating punishment.

4:152 To those who believe in God and His apostles and make no distinction between any of the apostles, we shall soon give their (due) rewards: for God is Oft- forgiving, Most Merciful.

4:153 The people of the Book ask thee to cause a book to descend to them from heaven: Indeed they asked Moses for an even greater (miracle), for they said: "Show us God in public," but they were dazed for their presumption, with thunder and lightning. Yet they worshipped the calf even after clear signs had come to them; even so we forgave them; and gave Moses manifest proofs of authority.


Nothing so far that even remotely and through serious stretching and misinterpreting can be connected to Blasphemy.

But wait. There is still the last one cited:


9:60 Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer the (funds); for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to Truth); for those in bondage and in debt; in the cause of God; and for the wayfarer: (thus is it) ordained by God, and God is full of knowledge and wisdom.

9:61 Among them are men who molest the Prophet and say, "He is (all) ear." Say, "He listens to what is best for you: he believes in God, has faith in the Believers, and is a Mercy to those of you who believe." But those who molest the Apostle will have a grievous penalty.

9:62 To you they swear by God. In order to please you: But it is more fitting that they should please God and His Apostle, if they are Believers.

Ok. Since there is a link, of sorts, that the italicised part in the above forms - and that was what the two Maulvis we debated the next day at an ICN forum kept coming back to - let's look at four more translations of it:

Khalifa: Some of them hurt the prophet by saying, "He is all ears!" Say, "It is better for you that he listens to you. He believes in GOD, and trusts the believers. He is a mercy for those among you who believe." Those who hurt GOD's messenger have incurred a painful retribution.

Pickthall: And of them are those who vex the Prophet and say: He is only a hearer. Say: A hearer of good for you, who believeth in Allah and is true to the believers, and a mercy for such of you as believe. Those who vex the messenger of Allah, for them there is a painful doom.

Shakir: And there are some of them who molest the Prophet and say: He is one who believes every thing that he hears; say: A hearer of good for you (who) believes in Allah and believes the faithful and a mercy for those of you who believe; and (as for) those who molest the Apostle of Allah, they shall have a painful punishment.

Sher Ali: And among them are those who annoy the Prophet and say, `He is all ear.' Say, `His giving ear to all is for your good; he believes in ALLAH and believes the Faithful, and is a mercy for those of you who believe.' And those who annoy the Messenger of ALLAH shall have a grievous punishment.

Oh what a tangled web they weave … When first they practice to deceive.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

T2F 2.0 is back!

Science Ka Adda — Salman Hameed, from Hampshire College, is here to start the days off with a new lecture on "Humans in the Cosmos: How 400 Years Of Telescopes Have Changed The Way We Look at Ourselves!" … Don't forget to see this startling talk (on December 22nd at 6.30 pm) by a brilliant young man.

Not into Science? Hmmm ... take a trip and see what you'd been missing! There's an exhibit of some of Pedro Meyer's beautiful work. And brilliant Coffee and other stuff. Books to buy … and many even to read at the studio upstairs. Music, too: It's soft and does not hurt your years. Urdu (and English) poetry, literature and more stuff to go. Coming to you soon.

Ohhh … if you are an Entrepreneur, there are seats for you, too, on a short/long term basis (just 5, though). A sponsor? A quick event? There's more … you know!

Drop in …

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Bertrand Russell … Mathemagical!

Wow! What a treat!
Delightful drawings. Great backgrounds.

I thought the whole concept
was stupendous.

So were the little images.

Thanks, a lot, Kove!

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Kaesay Kaesay Loag - Revelations (2)

Apologies for the delay ... but I did finally find the time to scan and edit things to put up and, so, as they customarily say at functions (but usually before making a long-winded introductory speech - which I've already done via the last two posts, anyway) I shan't come between you and the poet.

Yes, folks. That's the voice of the legendary Imtiaz Ahmad (recipient of the coincidentally named Tamghaé Imtiaz). His compilation of poems, "Mayray Shayr", a title as modest as he is, had a cover sketch of him by our famous cartoonist, Aziz …

and an introduction by the popular writer-columnist, Ibrahim Jalees. Here's the last paragraph:
The book had only a very limited circulation and was never reprinted, since the author thought it to be just a fun venture and of no consequence or literary merit. However, for me, it was part of some delightful memories. I was dismayed when my signed copy was stolen. I suspected that the culprit was a young cousin who had stayed with us. He used to read it often and, I am sure, soon after stealing it, put it to the same use as Samad and I ;-)

It was a thrill when Imtiaz Sahab presented me with a photocopy he'd thoughtfully brought along to the NCA and inscribed for me. (The 'wonderful job' reference that you see in the inscription is for the Urdu Poetry Project I have commenced at PeaceNiche. More about that once it's a bit further under way).

Why did Imtiaz choose to express himself via poetry? He answers it in the opening nazm.

Imtiaz Sahab also delved into the rubaaee form and frequently used it to describe the various 'beauties' he met. Three examples follow.

Our conversation that morning - which I recorded with his permission - was not a formal interview. We wandered all over the place during the chat and, hopefully, you'll enjoy some of the things he talks about that I had not heard mentioned before. The only editing that's been done to the recording is removing the long gaps of silence and the coaxing I had to do to get him to talk about his own achievements, since he is extremely shy and modest.

It's 35 minutes long and worth hearing. Enjoy.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Of Independence

Happy Independence Day?

Rather than write about my feelings (actually I feel kind of numb), I would like - once again - to share those of my friend, Naeem 'Warrior' Sadiq, the full-time working arm of the collective conscience of some of us.
I decided not to celebrate the 14th August this year, to record my personal grief, shame and solidarity with the innocent citizens of Gojra, who were killed , wounded and burnt, for belonging to the same God, but a different religion. In my room I will fly the Pakistan flag at half mast, I will put my TV off, have none of those “milli naghmey” and sing no national anthem. I am sad, ashamed and distressed. I will call up all my Christian friends to say I am deeply sorry and I apologise.

I do not wish to celebrate the birthdays of a land where the Mullahs spread hate from the minarets of their mosques. Where 20,000 Muslims unite to kill a few hundred Christian men, women and children. Where the administration provides bullet-proof vehicles and multi-layer protection to its leaders but will do nothing to protect the life and property of its ordinary citizens. I am ashamed that not one person, the CM, the PM, the Governor or the President resigned from his job as an admission of failure to perform their primary duty.

There are plenty of flags, parades, speeches and ceremonies, but no real sense of guilt, remorse, or reform. The Dawn newspaper alone has 24 ‘ad’ nauseam ads, sponsored by the government departments, with the tax payers’ money, most carrying the pictures of four members of the same family. All under the garb of a “Happy Birthday to you, dear Pakistan”. The theft and plunder of peoples’ money does not pause for rest, even on the 14th day of August. Should not a state, at a minimum, protect the life and property of all its citizens, to deserve ‘a happy birthday’.
Pakistan at 62: How different is it from Pakistan at 2?

Not very much, I guess, in matters that really matter. From Leaders to Facebookers, from the Steeple to Tweeple, everyone is still asking others to do something for Pakistan, even if it is just to superficially 'go green' by changing your display picture.

In 1949, when I was almost 9 and Pakistan had just turned 2, Abi (my father, Azhar Kidvai) wrote a poem that he read out on at a small mushaaerah celebrating Independence Day. While the rest of the poem was simple and understable enough at that age, too, it was the brief section of it that contained an anecdote I found very amusing and read it often enough to have it permanently etched in mind. Listen to me reciting it for my daughter, Ragni, a few years ago.

Random thoughts that occurred as I read about the Jaswant Singh book

• As I commented on Fawad Zakariya's FB, the one conclusion that I strongly subscribe to - and have always held - is that the Muslims of the subcontinent have been the greatest losers because of the Partition of India.

• It is obvious that had Pandit Nehru and others accepted certain demands, the Quaid - with his fairly strong commitment to Hindu-Muslim Unity - would not have had any reason to press on for Pakistan.

[BTW, I have never quite understood how one can support the concept of Democracy and, then, expect a larger than democratic share in the cake.]

• Pakistan was forged out of the fears of a Muslim minority. Whether they were real, perceived, or instigated (by the Pakistan Ka Matlab Kyaa brand of sloganism that introduced religiosity into the equation) is of no consequence.

[Incidentally, this is one of the the major reason for the tragic state we find ourselves in, because those who have attained security (the Feudals, the Rich-by-any-means, the Theocracy, and others in power deceptively usurped) have no more 'fears' and, so, are no longer concerned about the needs or insecurities of the rest.]

• Much as the Two-Nation Theory may have attempted to shape them artificially, this 'nation' (and a separate State for it) were certainly not created on the basis of common aspirations - the key ingredient that defines real nations.

[Had the usually touted ingredients for nationhood - the commonality of religion, language, heritage, culture, and, preferably, geographical contiguity - been of any real consequence, there would have been one large Arab state, or, at least, an attempt to push for one.]

• Nations (the American Nation is just one example) continue to exist, despite their many diversities in these matters, as long as they more-or-less share the larger vision for a common future.

• I anxiously await a book from a Pakistani writer that re-visits Gandhiji in the same way: criticism, yes - demonization, no!

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

For Neda …

Download a Graphic Novel based on Satrapi's
Persepolis and pass this link to others, please

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

A Tale of Two Anthems

Aé sarzameené paak
Zarray teray haéñ aaj sitaaroñ se taabnaak
Roshan haé kehkashaañ se kaheeñ aaj tayree khaak
Aé sarzameené paak

اے سرزمینِ پاك
ذرّے ترے ہیں آج ستاروں سے تابناك
روشن ہے كہكشاں سے كہیں آج تیری خاك
اے سرزمینِ پاك

O' pure land,
your every particle is more luminous than the stars.
Your dust is brighter than the Milky Way.
O' Pure Land

These are the only lines I can recall from Pakistan's FIRST National Anthem. It was written by the then Lahore-based poet, Jagannath Azad, in response to the Quaid's wish that our Anthem be written by a non-Muslim to underscore the vision of a secular Pakistan. The current Anthem (which includes the phrase Saayaé Khüdaaé Züljalaal that, now, apparently bristles some) was adopted just a few years later.

Can anyone help dig up the rest of the original?

While on the subject of the Anthem, people around my age may remember its majestic sound from the days of our youth. The richness of the band due so much, I guess, to the sounds of the instruments of that time - as well as the chorus version - has long disappeared, to be replaced by a relatively uninspiring re-recorded sound that leaves me cold.

Thanks to our finest composer-arranger-musician Arshad Mahmood's direction, and a brilliant recreation by the children of Karachi High School, you can download and hear that majesty again in this recording. 

I'd like to direct you to two of my earlier posts (this and this) that are linked to this topic.

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Thursday, April 30, 2009


Some believe that history repeats itself. Their opponents contend that it is nothing more than a nice sounding bit of rhetoric.

But one woman's legendary effort to stop the Peloponnesian War has become part of historical theatre. Translated into several languages, Lysistrata is one of the most staged plays. An Urdu version has even been performed in Pakistan by Sheema Kermani and her Tehrik-e-Niswan group.

Now, at least that part of of history seems to be repeating itself, as this BBC news item shows:
Kenyan women hit men with sex ban

Women's activist groups in Kenya have slapped their partners with a week-long sex ban in protest over the infighting plaguing the national unity government.
The Women's Development Organisation coalition said they would also pay prostitutes to join their strike.
The campaigners are asking the wives of the Kenyan president and the prime minister to join in the embargo.
They say they want to avoid a repeat of the violence which convulsed the country after the late-2007 elections.
Relations between Kenya's coalition partners, led by President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, have become increasingly acrimonious.
Now the dispute has moved to the nation's bedrooms.

Lead from the front

Patricia Nyaundi, executive director of the Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida), one of the organisations in the campaign, said they hoped the seven-day sex ban would force the squabbling rivals to make up.
She said the campaign would start from her bedroom and that emissaries had been sent to the two leaders' wives, Ida Odinga and Lucy Kibaki, urging them to join in and lead from the front.
"Even commercial sex workers should join in the campaign which is so vital to the country," Mrs Nyaundi told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.
"Great decisions are made during pillow talk, so we are asking the two ladies at that intimate moment to ask their husbands: 'Darling can you do something for Kenya?'"
Army wives in India and Pakistan: Here's your chance to make a REAL contribution!

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ivan Illich, I Love You!

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Jihad to end all Jihads?

On most days, Jigar's shayr 
جہلِ خرد نے دن یہ دكھاےٴ 
گھٹ گےٴ انساں بڑھ گےٴ ساےٴ 
comes to haunt me each time I switch on the TV or read the news. Today, however, this ad caught my eye:

Even to someone not 'into' the Sufi 'system' this seemed innocuous enough, especially given that the alternative being offered to the world is the mad and cruel Talibinized version of Islam and it's equally insane counterparts in other religions. (Well, in most of them, coz I'd really be bowled over if I met a fundamentalist Parsi!)

I mean, imagine, IF all the religions could merge into one big happy family, towards a peaceful unity! No Jihads. No Crusades. No Gujarats. No Pogroms. Wouldn't we - or at least the humans among us - be all for it?

But following the link led me to this fantasy…

one that is crying out to be placed on a pedestal, alongside L Ron Hubbard's con and that of Ramtha, one of the nuts in the group that gave us that well-packaged DVD set of half-truths ('What The Bleep…')

There really IS one born every minute.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

A Holy Conundrum

In Reading the Qur’an with Dr. Michael Sells - a column that appeared, albeit briefly, on the ICJS Website which I have visited off-and-on since 2002 - I came across this:
Participants were given two different English-language translations of the same Qur’anic passages. The Gracious Qur’an of Dr. Ahmad Zaki Hammad, a scholar with credentials from both Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University and the University of Chicago, served as a "fairly neutral" contrast to the more blatantly ideological Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an in the English Language, the work of two professors at the Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
Hammad's rendering of verses 1:6-7 -- "Guide us along the straight way -- the way of those upon whom You have bestowed grace, not those upon whom there is wrath, nor those astray" -- was more or less mirrored in the Saudi version, except for the insertion of two parenthetical clarifications: "those who have earned Your anger (such as the Jews), nor those who went astray (such as the Christians)."
Verse 2:62, which stood in Hammad as a statement of tolerance for other monotheistic religions ("whoever among them truly believes in God ... shall have their reward with their Lord"), was similarly clarified in the Saudi translation with a more stringent reading: "This Verse (and Verse 5:69) mentioned in the Qur’an should not be misinterpreted by the reader ... the provision of this verse was abrogated by the Verse 3:85: ‘And whosoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter, he will be one of the losers.’"

"The Saudi translation", Sells said, "was fairly unique in the degree to which it attempted to shape the reader's understanding of the text with insertions. But it has enjoyed great popularity over the past decades, owing to free world-wide distribution by the Saudi government."
Dr. Sells, as many of you may know, has authored among the comparatively few books about Islam and Muslims that come out of the West and are sympathetic to the topics. He is also a popular speaker and guest-writer at many fora. His book - Approaching the Quran - was at the center of a debate when it was assigned as a reading for students at the University of North Carolina.

While mentioning the book, I'd like to point readers to some excerpts from it on a Quaker website. I'd also be grateful if someone could let me have links to a similar site, by Muslims, that speaks of works considered holy by other religions in the same respectful and explanatory manner.

Ordinarily, I'd have paid no great attention to the sentence I have highlighted in red, above, except that the very next day I came across the words 'abrogation' and 'cancellation' also being used in the not-so-startling BBC: Dispatches documentaries. In these, too, they reference the same edition of the Qurãn (an Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation, but with modifications), that is distributed worldwide by the SA establishment.

The Doctrine of Abrogation applied to a 'Divine Revelation', by its own followers, seems - at least to my uneducated mind - a strange one. However, in various forms, it has been part of the Muslim view. While some reject such a concept, others quote the holy book, itself, as the source of such a belief. To this end, they cite Surah 2:106: "None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?"

Whatever the meaning of the above-quoted verse - and it has been subject to a variety of interpretations and much debate - a translation license surely does not extend to justifying the addition of brackets for adding one's own slants and biases to the meaning. I would have expected that translators and interpreters of all works, but especially when playing with such a sensitive subject or with words they believe to be of divine origin, would confine their personal comments to the margins and footnotes.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

We Interrupt This Blog For Some Breaking News ...

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Yayyyy. It's Darwin Day!

This blog is not to enter into the age-old controversy. It's to celebrate the birthday of one of the greatest minds that ever lived.

Happy Birthday, Charles!

One hundred and fifty years after the publication of one of the most important books in human history, the debate rages on.

The criticism or fear of something, without having even tried to understand or know about it, is hardly a POV that needs to be even considered worthy of discussion or debate. But it deserves a mention, only because it turns up often enough.

The best (and most recent) example I have come across of this stubborn and disturbing attitude - disturbing because it was voiced by someone I thought was a sensible person. This is what she said: I really haven't given too much thought to this theory, I just firmly don't believe in it!

Wow! I guess this is the kind of person Oliver Wendell Holmes (Jr.) had in mind when he wrote, "The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye. The more light you shine on it, the more it will contract."

Then there's that delightful 'just-a-theory' brigade.
JUST A THEORY? According to the United States National Academy of Sciences...
Some scientific explanations are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them. The explanation becomes a scientific theory. In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena.
A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not "guesses" but reliable accounts of the real world. The theory of biological evolution is more than "just a theory." It is as factual an explanation of the universe as the atomic theory of matter or the germ theory of disease. Our understanding of gravity is still a work in progress. But the phenomenon of gravity, like evolution, is an accepted fact.
The other big issue - at least among many of the people around me - is the feeling that, since many of the atheists must believe in Evolution (after all, they have no one else to credit for Life), the whole Evolution enterprise, itself, must be an anti-God, anti-religious ideology and needs to be shunned offhand.

Hmmm. Most atheists I know also believe that the world is round, but I don't see anyone refuting that. Well, almost anyone.


Larson's excellent book, Evolution - The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory, opens with this quote Darwin.m4a and, thus, sets the tone for what follows in this up to date and wonderfully readable work. Listenable, too: an audio-book version is now on sale at T2F. Do buy it. And if it's sold out by the time you make it there, order it from them. It's worth every penny.

But, if you are unfamiliar with the theory (10-to-1, it's not what you've heard it is!), Google Charles Darwin and get to know more about his dangerous idea!

Among those who deny Evolution, there are Creationists, in various flavors. Some believe that Earth was created 6000+ years ago, some who think that humans and dinosaurs lived concurrently and even interacted, and some who believe that fossilized bones were 'created' as is, in order to test us.

None of these clowns, however, convinced me of the flaws in Darwin's ideas as did this part of an email from someone (who, admittedly, reads a lot of Harun Yahya): The question I have is then for all Darwin's greatness and stories why has this evolution stopped all of a sudden? If it was a continuous process then that factor should not have gone away - it should have kept occuring. Then why do we see natural births and not have babies coming to us as apes or from apes ????

Damn! Damn! Damn! Why didn't I think of this? 

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hitting the ground running ...

Please pass on the url of this post to your friends - Zak

A direct message from Sabeen Mahmud

17th January 2009

Dear PeaceNiche and T2F Community,

612 days ago T2F opened its doors to you. Our vision was lofty, and frankly, a bit mad. Who would walk up to the second floor of an office building on Khayaban-e-Ittehad to listen to a poet rambling on about revolution, or a scientist arguing in favour of evolution, or some kids playing drums? Well, as it turns out, thousands of people ...

In these 612 days minus Mondays, our tiny space has hosted over 150 events featuring thought leaders, artists, poets, musicians, scientists, magicians, writers, philosophers, dancers, actors, lawyers, and activists. Hundreds of you have written in to tell us how much T2F means to you and to the city of Karachi. Every e-mail, snail mail, text message, and Facebook Wall post that you have sent has given us the strength to carry on. Many of you have supported us through your donations and even helped us replace our stolen Mac. We can't thank you enough.

By now you are probably thinking that we're closing down and that this is a goodbye note. No such luck :D But there is some critical news that we need to share with you.

We called our landlord the day-before-yesterday, to ask him when he was going to get the lift fixed. He was non-committal and then said he wanted us to vacate the premises. The initial shock was soon replaced by calm determination and optimism.

At yesterday's literary event, we broke the news. Practically everyone came forward to express solidarity and support. Some of you graciously volunteered your offices, houses, gardens, and basements for us to conduct our events till we find our own space. And one of you, a volunteer/student/journalist, kick-started the donation drive with a contribution of Rs. 5,000. Thank you Batool.

So, here's the plan:

We plan to vacate the current premises by early February 2009. We have already been offered several temporary spaces to conduct our events until such time that we find a permanent venue. We would like to move to a new space - a home we can call our own - as soon as possible. It's going to be tough and we can't do it alone. We simply don't have the funds. As you know, PeaceNiche is a non-profit organization and we have meagre funding. We are reaching out to you to help us in any way that you can. We will be writing to you again with specific requirements, but in the meanwhile, please spread the word about our need for a permanent, rent-free space so that we can get up and running without losing momentum.

Over the next few days, please come to T2F as often as possible - we'll recreate the magic wherever we go but this is where it all started. Thank you Karachi for believing in us.



Sabeen Mahmud

PeaceNiche / The Second Floor
Phone: (92-300) 823-0276 |

About Us

The Second Floor (T2F) is a project of PeaceNiche, a not-for-profit NGO committed to becoming a vibrant centre of Pakistan’s developing civil society. T2F is a community platform for open dialogue and features a coffeehouse, bookshop, and exhibition gallery.

Only around 10 days ago I had spoken with the landlord regarding the elevator that has been out of commission for a while, as a result of vandalism, and during promising to arrangethe repairs soon he had mentioned how much - with our association of several years (he was also the landlord of our office,  b.i.t.s., in the same building for years) - he would like us to stay on in the present space "for 10 years if you like". Now he was suddenly asking us to vacate and, while there was no direct threat that he was making, he certainly wasn't dropping big names, from A to Z, needlessly and without rhyme or reason during his conversation ...

باغباں نے آگ دی جب آشیانے كو مرے
جن پہ تكیہ تھا وہی پتّے ہوا دینے لگے

All my friends had told me not to be hopeful about there ever being any changes in the way this country runs. Being the optimist I am, I chose to not lose hope ... a hope that was bolstered further by one particularly important person in our politics, who had expressed over several mail exchanges that "this time it will be very different". HaaH! 


Sunday Update: Dawn Metropolitan carried this piece today. Thanks a million, Bina.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Void (& The CREaTIoNist's Filler!)

In any English Medium school in Pakistan - be it the one that people are almost dying to send their child to, or the little one on the corner of the street near your house which thinks that to be really 'acceptable' it's essential to have the word 'Saint' in its name (the one near mine is called "St. Humpty Dumpty's") - there is one common problem: Getting the children interested in reading Urdu books.

There are many reasons, of course.

For one, many parents pay more than they can afford just so their child can get a basic knowledge of English - hoping that, in later years, this will open up better job opportunities. In fact it does, both internationally and locally. So when their child starts reading English books, comics, newspapers and magazines, they feel they are getting a return on their investment and rarely notice (or purposely overlook) the almost total absence of Urdu books around their child. (I live in Karachi so I am basing this on my experience, but friends across the country tell me that books in the national and regional languages share, at best, the same fate everywhere. YMMV.)

For another, the quality of the Urdu books for each age group, though improving slowly now, is still so low in terms of print quality, paper quality, and illustrations (all of which are victims of 'the economies of scale') in comparison to their English counterparts that no child finds them attractive enough to choose from the school library.

One thing that puzzles me, though, is why the 'content', too, is so poor. While English books present adventures and situations that are contemporary and within the direct or indirect (via Films & TV) experience of the child, the Urdu books are often still stuck in another century. Why are there no Enid Blytons, Roald Dahls, J K Rowlings, Shel Silversteins, or even R L Stines? Why did things come to a halt with Toat Batoat and Paesa Library?

A few Urdu books from The Book Group - despite some flaws (I recall Anita Ghulamali fuming at the book that focused on Mohaavraas) - did raise hopes, at least through the production quality and wonderful illustrations.

Some large school systems have brought out their own series that offers shades of improvement over the run of the mill material, as do books from established publishers. But these, too, concentrate primarily on the production quality. Thoughtless editing mars several of them.

For example, instead of actively negating stereotypes - particularly of women - that do so much damage, some actually reinforce them. Often the husband is shown coming home from work in a chauffeur-driven car while children and house-wifey dear run outside to greet him - a rather atypical situation in the home of many children who go to these upper-middle-class and elite schools. In one book mom and kids in such a scenario are even shouting out, in unison, "Hamaaray liyay kyaa laaé?" Just a few pages later, girls are shown choosing to play with dolls, while boys choose cars ... again a strange representation, today. Stand outside many of these types of schools at drop-time and see how many women (compared to men) drive their children to school or arrive to teach there.

Nationalistic lip-service to Maadaré Millat aside, few stories, if any, are ever centred around working women - except the token nurse or someone on the periphery. This from teaching or publishing organizations that are not just filled with women on their workforce but frequently even headed by them!

Poetry, one of Urdu's greatest pleasures, receives a really rough treatment. Technically wrong lines (especially in the case of mauzooniat) are often found, as are misquoted verses. This passes through not just the Editors but also, unchecked, through Urdu teachers who do not make corrections that their English-teaching counterparts would routinely make in a similar situation in the same school. Why? Because, as products of the same Urdu-rejecting education system, they know no better!

Of course, trying to point out a mistake to the school is even worse. Either - if the teacher is vengeful, and some are - your child has to bear the brunt for having a 'finicky' parent or, if you and your child are lucky, you merely get - as I did - a stupid response.
Glancing at 6-year old Ragni's Urdu notebook I noticed that in the homework given to her a word had been written wrongly (the assignment was in the teacher's hand and a letter of the alphabet in it contained an extra 'shosha').

I sent a separate polite note to her saying that she should be a little more careful as the children would think that the 'shape' was the correct one ... to which the teacher responded that the child in question was too young to read the homework assignment and, obviously, it would be read by a parent who is expected to know the correct form and, so, there really was no problem. O-kayyy....
Enter - The Deceiver: One problem that poor quality Urdu books (as well as poorly printed pirated English books) published here have created is that schools are hungry for any well-presented books in Urdu and Islamiyaat (the 2nd of the 3 subjects that children find boring for the way it is taught ... the third being Pak Studies.) I shan't even delve into the fact - at least in this post - that Urdu course books have turned almost entirely into 'Islamiyaat plus Pak Studies' books in an obviously failing effort at producing better Muslims or Pakistanis.

Nature abhors a vacuum and gaps are soon filled by matter ... but nature passes no judgement on the quality of the matter that fills the vacuum. Precious stones and bullshit are equally welcome as long as the volume is the same. So, in jump books from that misleading fraud, the phenomenon known as Harun Yahya. After all, they are beautifully published. The quality of the photographs is at par with the kind one sees in NatGeo (some may even have been licensed from that publication). The text is simple (even when it contains distortion or misrepresentation of facts).

The books have in-built protection: The subject is clothed in the magical world of 'beliefs', even the most stupid of which are difficult to challenge today - unless, of course, the view is that of a minority - for fear of offending some highly inflammable weirdo. (Even HY's own belief system does not escape distortion, intelligently 'covered' - at least for legal purposes - by innuendo and the kind of psychological weaknesses that all marketing exploits.) And - a boon in this age of multimedia - there are even videos (again, of very high quality) available that can supplement the text.
Teachers: Just switch them on. Switch yourselves off. Relax. No great damage will be done to the students, who, once the lights go off for 'projection', will either fall asleep or indulge in other productive activities.
So who can resist introducing these gorgeous books into schools? Or who can, at the very least, delete non-factual passages? Better still, who can encourage the students to debate them ... for 'censorship' isn't the best of ideas in a learning environment? Well, I don't know about who can, but I know who should: An 'educated' Principal or Teacher. Recently I said this to a school-owner and she said those are difficult to find. Hmmmm ... I have suggested that (since she is aware of this poor state of affairs and is, to the best of my knowledge, a decent and honest human) her school should carry a warning banner (like cigarette packets do): Beware - Teaching in this school is often done by people who don't know their subject.

Harun Yahya fans may be angered by my putting down someone so respected among people who, when confronted with specifics, have a question that always drives me up the wall: "Aap itnay deep mayñ kyooñ jaa rahay haeñ?"

For those who may not be aware of HY's "mistakes" (if one is feeling charitable) or "intentional fraudulent manipulation" (if one is willing to call a spade a spade - for it is unlikly that an author, with a veritable fundo-funded publishing industry behind him, would not have researched matters better), here's a link that should clarify why I feel so strongly against the use of these books in schools, especially the purchase of his Atlas of Creation.

A more recent and frightening phenomena is the showing of his videos as in-flight entertainment. This, too, must stop ... unless, in the interest of fairness, the films are followed immediately by this video.

Any ideas?

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

India 4: An uncanny tale ... (Part 2 — The Conclusion)

When you have had the benefit of a 25-year stint at sea (1959-1984), there is bound to be much that is narratable and shareable, with some of it even of interest to a few people outside your immediate family. But this post is, primarily, about Gupta Cha (and his family) - so I shall make only brief references to the other parts which will be covered in greater detail in "Ships and Shoes and Sealing Wax" (if that "book+" ever gets completed).

However, as indicated at the end of my previous post, the real conclusion to the tale - which took place last year - will make up the second half of this post. The first will be spent breezing through the intervening years.

Ok, so it's 1947, the last day of September. Abi has finally received permission to extend his leave and proceed with the family to Karachi. We are to set sail on the S.S. DUMRA (of the British India Steam Navigation Co.) and are standing on a pier. There's a mad rush wherever one casts an eye. If I had known of the concept then, I would probably have thought of Maedaané Hashr. The sounds of bawling from families being separated can be heard mingling with the shrill laughter of children running everywhere, excited by the journey.

The 5 of us soon board the ship, bidding goodbye to Gupta Cha and to Badshah Chacha, who has travelled from South India to see us off. Standing with them is a close friend of my father, the amazing Dr. Baliga (one of my 'ideals' when I was a teenager), who was once invited to Pakistan to treat our Governor General, Ghulam Mohammad.

A couple of Sikh hockey players from the Bombay Sea Customs, 'fans' of Abbu Jan, have arrived to say goodbye to their Hockey Hero,
but now seem more interested in Chacha Jania (Talat Mahmood) whom they have cornered. As usual, he is too shy and polite to get away from them, though he wants to join us for parting hugs. The very moment that we start up the gangway, he runs towards us and the Sikhs shout out to all, "Yeh Talat Mahmood bhaaga jaa rahaa hae Pakistan. Roko. Roko." The laughs lighten the sad moment.

We are shown to a cabin which, though meant for 2+1, is spacious enough and the bistarband comes in handy. Soon, the ship's ropes are cast off and we move gently away from the pier. The air is suddenly filled with wave after wave of loud roars of Pakistan Zindabad and Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad. One can feel not just the passion but the freedom in those naaraas, suppressed at the pier where everyone realized that such slogans could incite riots.

Once Bombay harbour begins to fade out of sight, Abi contacts the officer who is doing the rounds to inform him that he is a doctor and available for any emergency help that the ship's team might need. An hour or so later, he is called up by the captain and, with two other doctors and a couple of nurses also travelling as passengers. They are introduced to the Ship's Medical Officer and agree to do frequent rounds and assist with any passengers needing help.

At some late hour we are woken up by Abi to meet - and accommodate, if possible - a couple trying to find a comfortable place to rest. He has found them on his very first round. The bearded husband is none other than poet Bahzaad Lakhnavi. Some of you may be familiar with Begum Akhtar's rendition of his "Deevaana Banaana Hae To ..."

Once a rangeen shaaer, Bahzaad Chacha later turned into a very prolific naat go, and now lies buried in Karachi with signs on the graveyard proclaiming his ishqé rasool. His unique tarannum was extremely popular with müshaerah audiences. The next 3 days of the journey are spent with him and Abi reciting ghazals to each other with a slowly increasing 'fan club' blocking the passageways.

The day before arrival in Karachi is my 7th birthday. Bahzaad Chacha gives me a shayr as gift. The original, in his hand, has long been lost ... but I still remember the words:
Tüm ko tohfay mayñ aur kyaa dayñ ham?
Lo nayaa mülk ... Iss mayñ phoolo phalo!
Abbu Jan gets a small temporary house somewhere near Jackson Bazaar in Keamari and, later, moves into the large Customs Flats nearby. We live with them for a few weeks while Abi - almost penniless - does the rounds in Karachi in the hope of finding a suitable job in some hospital. He does not wish to re-join the Army and has applied for release.

One day, quite by chance, Abi bumps into Swami Ji (as we always addressed him). He recognizes Abi as one of his fellow students at medical college. Abi learns that Swami Ji and two other colleagues run a charitable hospital - with free treatment for Hindus - under the Ramakrishna Mission.

They are on the verge of leaving for India, after handing over the place to GoP (as evacuee property, I guess). The stock of medicines, good for about a year, is to be thrown out since transferring them to other hospitals is considered a major task of logistics and accounting.

Abi is apalled. He says he would like to continue running the hospital, without charging the Mission, until all the medicines run out. He promises to keep it free for Hindus if the Mission agrees that the free treatment could also be extended to Muslim refugees who cannot afford to pay. They agree, but there is the Government to convince. Abi's old Aligarian friend, Mr A. T. Naqvi, now the Commissioner of Karachi, arranges for this to be formalized and, suddenly, Abi has a job which, though it carries no salary, comes - to our delightful surprise - with a small 2 room apartment on Nazareth Road (half-way between Guru Mandir and Soldier's Bazaar). We live next to the larger apartment occupied by Swami Ji and his colleagues. I am in and out of their house all day, devouring all the Idlees and Dossas and Rasm they can feed me - which explains my desire to dart off to the South Indian Sagar restaurant the moment I get to Dilli. (If you ever go there, be sure to try their almost-3-foot-long Paper Dossa.)

Diversion The Nazareth Road house is purchased the following year by a Nawab Hasan Yar Jang (nephew of the colourful Nizam of Hyderabad) and Swami Ji manages to have it written into the agreement that as long as Abi is alive he can continue to stay in that apartment, paying rent - of course. The Swamis leave in a few months. Nawab Sahab - always very civil when we encounter him in the building - shifts in with his 'lingerers on'. He gives me my favourite mithai - genuine Baadaam Ki Lauz - whenever he receives a package of it from Hyderabad. I even get to go with him and (What a treat!) sit in the Royal Stall to attend the Platinum Jubilee of Aga Khan III (grandfather of the present one), a ceremony Nawab Sahab is attending on behalf of the Nizam.

But Nawab Sahab is a stickler for words. The contract says that my father can occupy the house as long as he lives. On 18th September 1963 my ship happens to arrive in Karachi. On the 19th my father dies. (Abbu Jan and Ammi Jan are getting a house built in Iqbal Town and are temporarily staying with us, which offers Ummi and me a bit of solace, since we have all been very close, always.) The Nawab attends the funeral, comes into the house to condole with my mother, and informs me on his way out that we have to vacate the house in 48 hours! Which is what I try to do, but it takes a bit longer and needs the good offices of neighbour, ex-Mayor Khan Bahadur Gabol Sahab, to convince the Nawab. I sail away two days after our hurried shifting. This trip to Karachi has been a life-changing experience for someone only 23 years old. But let me get back on track.

Gupta Cha is in touch by mail and we receive a picture of him and Chachi soon after their wedding in 1949 or 1950. This exchange continues, off and on. When Abi dies, Ummi receives a very warm letter from them, asking "Bhabiji" to stay with them in Dilli for a while. But the trip never materializes. We couldn't afford it. Then, for some reason - possibly mail going astray after the 1965 war - we all lose touch.

For years I search for him ... but can recall neither his rank nor anything else. Whenever my ship is at an Indian port, I try to think up ways to find Gupta Cha. Trying to find a 'Gupta' in the Indian army, I am told, is just short of tracing the right 'Khan' in Afghanistan.

Zoom ahead to 1983: I am in command of a ship operated by the Gokals out of Hong Kong. The officers and crew of these ships are multinational and on my ship the Chief Engineer, Vipin Kaura, is from India. Vipin's father - a retired Army officer - comes from Dilli to visit our ship and stays there for a few days.
Soon after 'Uncle Kaura' arrives, I decide to go wish him. I plan to remember to say Aadaab in the old tradition but my Pakistani Radio Officer - a Lahori - tells me that that was not as common a greeting in Punjab as in Delhi and the U.P., so maybe I should say Namsté to be polite. I walk in and say that, a bit awkwardly, failing badly at the hand coordination for the accompanying gesture. Uncle Kaura - originally from Rawalpindi - says. "Aray ... hum to soach rahay thay keh bohat din baad Salaam Alaeküm sünnay ko milay ga ..." and soon the talk turns to his homesickness and losing touch with old friends. He regrets forgetting to write Urdu well.
During the stay I recount 'our' partition story and he asks me if there is anything I can recall about Gupta Cha that could help trace him. Apart from his first name, Birjesh, I usually can't recall anything. But from some hidden corner of my mind, that day, I bring forth two facts that I'd never consciously recalled earlier. Someone in Gupta Cha's family - possibly his father? - was a Judge. And they lived in a house called Bürj Mahal in Meerut. Before he leaves the ship and heads home, Uncle Kaura says he will ask some old colleagues about Gupta Cha but doubts if anything will come of it.

Five days later, I am standing at the Shipping Agency office when I am handed an envelope posted from Delhi, addressed to me. I open it and discover a letter in Urdu in a shaky hand. It starts "Pyaaray Baytay ...". "How sweet of Uncle Kaura," I think to myself, "to try and write in Urdu after all these years." But the next para that I read (writing this I am still feeling the same sensation as I did then) is something I cannot believe. I jump ahead and look at the bottom of the next page. YESSSSS! It says "Tümhaara Gupta Cha". It takes me an interminable amount of time to absorb this. A clerk comes up and asks if I am OK. I have tears streaming down my cheeks and can barely speak as I read about Gupta Cha thinking each year of me on my birthday, admittedly not difficult to remember in India (It's Gandhi Ji's, too!). I read and re-read the letter. He wants me to fly out to Delhi. Of course I cannot (not just because of the visa but because we sail out in 2 days).
It turns out that Uncle Kaura, immediately on his return to Delhi, took a bus to Meerut and spent the day searching for Bürj Mahal. Unsuccesful at his attempt, he stopped at a shop in a multistory building to have a cold drink before taking the bus back. The shopkeeper and he got into a conversation and he mentioned his search for Bürj Mahal. "This very building is where it used to be," said the shopkeeper, "and the old owners live right on top, I think." So up climbed Uncle Kaura and met Gupta Cha's sister-in-law and told her the tale. She recalled our family and informed Uncle Kaura that Gupta Cha lived in Delhi! Defence Colony!! One lane behind Uncle Kaura's house!!! (Yes, Woody Allen. Life does imitate bad television!). So it is to Uncle Kaura that I owe more than I had realized.
After I regain control of my senses (and I am not dramatizing this ... it did take a while, as 36 years and all that's happened in that period ran through my mind) I immediately decide to phone him. And Ummi. Getting connected to Karachi, oddly, happens very quickly but I just manage to tell her that I've found Gupta Cha when, even more quickly, the line drops and we cannot get through again. Getting through to Delhi is a 'trunk call' - as calls between cities were then known - and requires a 'booking'. "It's about a 3-4 hour wait," says the operator. The manager of the agency, who, like everyone else in that room, has heard bits of my story by then, takes the phone from me and says something in Marathi, and then translates it for me. "Maeñ saalay ko bola 'Yeh jaldi type ka call hae! Death and Illness Emergency'. Abhee das minat mayñ mil jaae ga."

Of course I can't recall the conversation with Gupta Cha. Too full of both of us trying to fill the other in about everyone and everything. Sobs. Laughter. He tells me he has two children. The son, nicknamed 'T2' is in the army. His daughter, Nanu, is married to Sunil who is in the Navy and is posted in Bombay. I am excited. "Can I see her?" Gupta Cha gives me the address of her house in the Naval Colony and, still reeling from all this, I am put on a rickshaw by the friendly clerk who first tells the driver my story and then instructs him to wait wherever I am going and bring me back later and collect the money from the office as part of the celebrations for my joy. Awwwww.

So off I go. Kinda stupidly quick response, if I'd just thought a bit. I can't even get into the Naval Colony in my own city without some identity papers. And, as a Ship Captain from Pakistan, I should not even be near an Indian Navy area. But who was thinking? In retrospect, I often shudder. Had I been arrested and charged with a Pak spy masquerading as an Indian, I'd still be in jail there, if alive. But I was not pretending about anything. I was excited and that's all that must have shown on my face. No nervousness at all. Just a stupid pasted smile of the kind that airline staff bear. The clothes, too, helped. I was in a white khaddar kurta pyjama - my usual dress code for the evenings - a common sight in Bombay, anyway. The chatty rickshaw vaala, who informed me that he was a Muslim and had relatives in Karachi, spoke to the guard when he asked where we were headed. "Aray chho∂o yaar ... 30 saal baad behen say milnay jaa rahaa hae sahab!" And we were in.
Later, I have laughed often at the thought that the Indian Naval Security services are at the same level as ours - recalling that in the 60s, when we docked in Karachi with ammunition that our ship had brought in from Iran, the whole port area was under security and passes were required to board the craft. Not even our own officers could step onto the quay and board the ship again without passes. Sitting in my room, I nearly leapt out of my chair as I saw an old friend from India walk in. "How the eff did you get on board? It's bloody tight security!" ... Bhagwan Das winked and said, "Full Paanch rupyah diya gate vaalay ko, yaar!"
The meeting with Sunil and Nanu was great. It was like being at home with people I'd always known. No takallüf. They already knew of me. Their elder daughter, Ayeshah, (named by Gupta Cha) fell asleep soon but I did get to carry around the new addition, 4-month old Amrita, after eating a lovely home-cooked meal, so that Nanu could eat in peace. I wish the ship would have stayed longer so I'd have got to spend more time with them.

For a year or so Nanu and I managed to stay in occasional contact, but Sunil was then posted to Vishikhapatnam, I think, and none my letters ever reached them, so we lost touch. Gupta Cha and I wrote to each other often and I phoned him from several ports - Hong Kong, Singapore, from wherever I could dial direct. He and Ummi, too, exchanged a few letters (in Urdu!). He was insistent that I hop across the border and stay with him for a few days. "I have a room reserved for you", he'd always tell me. But visas were an impossibility for me then.

I returned to Karachi in late March 1986 and Ummi told me that Gupta Cha had passed away just a couple of days earlier. Fate's cruel joke... to have found him after years and never met him! I spoke to Chachi on the phone. There was less to say except in silence.

Some time later, I received a call from "T2", whom I had not been in any kind of contact with. His addressing me as "Bhaisaahab" seemed so strange.

He told me they were letting go of the house and he was taking Chachi along to wherever he was posted then. Chachi came on the line - and in one of the most touching moments for me in this strange saga - asked me if it would be possible, before they left the house, to come and stay a day or two in the room that Gupta Cha had earmarked for me. I tried but I could not get the NOC needed for a visa. (Although I had left the sea - swallowing the anchor soon after Ragni's birth and Ummi's accident that confined her to a wheelchair - and started a company of my own, my passport still showed Merchant Seaman as my profession, so our Ministry had to issue NOCs.)

I never managed to contact T2 and Nanu again. Uncle Kaura, too, passed away before I could find out the address from where, maybe, I could get a forwarding address they'd left behind. On my next trip to Delhi I told Vipin about trying to find T2 and, together, we called up several Guptas, none of whom could help. I discussed with Tarun (of Tehelka) the possibility of an ad in his paper looking for these people but we never got around to it.

Fast Forward: It's late 2007. I am sitting at T2F in Karachi and get a call from a Pakistani Merchant Ship Captain, some years junior to me. We don't really know each other. He is writing a book about our Merchant Navy and wants any photos that I may have which could be used. Then he says, "I was in Bombay last week at a meeting and there was someone who wanted to get in touch with you. I promised to trace your numbers and send them to him." I imagine it's one of my many Indian fellow seafarers from the NOL (Singapore) or GESL (Hong Kong) days. But it turns out that it's someone from the Indian Navy.

"SUNIL?" I almost shout the question. "Yes." It's just too crazy! I get Sunil's number and call him up. Later, I speak with Nanu. I learn that Chachi is no more. None of us ever got to meet her :-( Then I get a Delhi number and call T2, whom I'd searched for as a Major? Colonel? Something Gupta. In all the years I was in contact with the Gupta family, no one had ever mentioned T2's full name! Turns out he is Pradeep Kumar. Chalo. And he's been living in Delhi for a few years (during many of which I've been visiting the place often, even for long periods).

Much as I wanted to, I could not attend T2's son (and my fellow Merchant Navy Officer) Abhimanyu's wedding in Jaipur, where Ashmita's family live. Just a few days earlier that city had suffered from bomb blasts (obviously, the blame was laid at our doorstep, as is customary) so getting a visa to that city was out of the question.

Things are getting better. T2 met Ragni in Dhaka during a business trip. I met him and his wife, Ruby, when I stopped over in Delhi en route to Kolkota for a meeting. Sunil flew over from Mumbai and we had dinner together. Nanu, I hope, will be able to come to Delhi the next time I am there (hopefully in the last week of the next month). And I am dying to see the kids all grown up.

If ever there could be a suitable postscript to all this, it's this email I received just a while ago.


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Sunday, October 12, 2008

India 3: An uncanny tale ... (Part 1 — The Rather Long Preamble)

Rewind to late-1944 to 1945 (give or take 6 months ... for I am just guessing). The Second World War is in full swing. My father, a doctor, has had to enroll in the Army. The three of us - Abi, Ummi, and I - are constantly on the move from camp to camp.

Abi's short postings take us into cantonments from Jhansi to Campbellpur - places now in two different countries but made famous by their queens - and several others towns I can only vaguely recall. For some details, however, my memory is almost photographic: I can recall every face at our table - even the orange floral pattern on the sari Ummi was wearing - when the cook, Salamat, came running in to warn us that Sultana Daku was about to attack. Of course, like most things associated with Salamat, it turned out to be a figment of his opium-inspired imagination. I guess why I haven't forgotten the incident is because I have been forever chided for asking "Will he sign my autograph book?"

I am 4+ years old and always the only child at all of these places, as far as I can recall. (Wish I had asked my parents why that was so ... for it does seem odd to me now.) This lack of peers makes me spend most of my time around the same things that the grown-ups around me enjoy: books, magazines, music, poetry ... and sitting with them, trying to make sense of their discussions.

Travelling with us everywhere, among Abi's uniforms, Ummi's saris & ghararaas, my favourite embroidered chikan kurtaas (and my own uniform) is my box of Meccanos #0/#1 and a small crate of Abi-Ummi's books. Apart from Ummi's stack of Ismat issues and Kohé Qaaf Kay Peechhay - a book of children's stories from which she read to me - I can recall 4 of them even 60+ years later: There is a Deevaané Ghalib, for which my mother has made a slipcase in papier-maché and decorated with dried leaves. On one large leaf is her attempt at a pen-sketch of Ghalib that she is very proud of, until one of Abi's colleagues assumes the sketch to be Jesus. (He thinks the book is an Urdu translation of the Bible and is being kept, like Qurãns, in a jüzdaan). The other books are Palgrave's Golden Treasury, Feroze-ul-Lughaat (Farsi), and a Platts' Dictionary that was gifted to Abi by someone at one of the camps. The latter 2 are still with me :-)

My lifelong habit of travelling heavy is obviously inherited from my parents, for there is also another 'essential' and much cared-for set of items that weigh a ton and go everywhere with us: A black trunk that contains an HMV wind-up gramophone and a small music 'collection' (78 RPM records), neatly stored in 2 metal boxes, painted dark green. Inscribed on them in white paint: WEST; EAST. The first holds some records by Caruso, Gigli, Chaliapain, McCormack, and Debussy's Claire De Lune by someone. Imagine how often I must have heard all these names to be familiar with them at that age! The second, a bigger box, is populated by our own classical music's demi-gods: Fayyaz Khan, Karim Khan, Bai Kesarbai, Omkarnath Thakur, Enayat Khan. It also has a thin balsa wood partition that keeps these giants segregated from mere mortals who sing "light pieces": K. L. Saigal*, Akhtari Bai, Kamla Jharia. There's even a Talat Mahmood (his very first: Sab Din Ayk Samaan Naheeñ Tha) - included, I suspect, more because of Abi's almost-paternal love for his younger cousin than for the song. (Ummi enjoyed the song, but it just wasn't on my father's musical hot-list ... although he got all teary-eyed and mushy whenever we played it!)

At one or two camps, where we stayed relatively longer, Abi made friends with a few people equally interested in English literature, Urdu shaaeri, and music. The well-known humourist, Dr. Shafiq-ur-Rahman, was my father's junior at one camp and was always a barrel of fun when he came over, with my mother and others teasing him about some new nurse or the other he would fall for on a fortnightly basis. (This, I narrate not as much from memory as from tales retold.) Shafiq chacha and my father had everyone rolling with laughter as they used crazy words, such as Posheedah Ghünchee for Chhipkalee). There were humourous verses, too, a few of which, including a ghazal with a funny qaafiah ("ch, ch" = "tsk, tsk" - by Abi) appear in Shafiq Chacha's book, Lahrayñ. This scanned image of three of its couplets is from Abi's bayaaz.

Three other people who stayed in touch over the years were Khan Chacha, Badshah Chacha, & Gupta Chacha. The first two came to Pakistan and our family ties continued beyond their deaths and those of my father and mother. Sadly, Badshah Chacha (whose eldest son laughingly claims to have been conceived at our house) died very early. Khan Chacha was around for quite a while and continued visiting Ummi and me regularly after my father passed away in 1963. Despite the fact that these two chachaas were part of my life as I grew up in Karachi - and were extremely affectionate and caring - it was "Gupta Cha", left behind in India, whom I inexplicably missed most.

Fast Forward: It's January 1946. The war has been over for months. We are in Delhi, where Abi has rented a space and set up a small clinic, which he hopes to expand. He has asked for a release from the Army and is waiting for it to arrive. Ummi is busy all day, putting together crockery and stationery, even embroidering a floral K on new bed-sheets and pillow-covers for the 2-bed 'overnight hospital' they hope to build in the small space behind the clinic some day.

Our flat above the clinic is small but frequently filled with poets and writers, because Abi is the Joint Secretary of Anjumané Taraqqiyé Urdu. (The other 'joint' being a young Jamiluddin Aali). I have vague memories of Ustaads like Jigar and Seemaab on one or two occasions and a clearer one - from what may have been the last week in that house - of a very young Habib Jalib, whom I remember because of his beautiful voice, long hair, and the super-shiny :-) white sharkskin shervaani.

We are just beginning to settle down but Abi is suddenly asked to report for another year and is shunted off to medical camps in Baghdad, Cairo, and Jerusalem. Keen on Biblical History - it is from him, again, that I get my passion for it - these postings thrill him as he visits hundreds of legendary sites. Take a look at a picture of Jesus's traditionally claimed birthplace from Abi's album.

Abi even visits Karachi during his to-ing and fro-ing and is impressed by what was then a lovely, friendly and exremely clean city. Here's a view that I also found in his album of Elphinstone Street (now Zebunnisaa Street, named - oddly, methinks - after the daughter that King Aurangzeb kept imprisoned for years***). Times change! The city has changed in every conceivable and inconceivable way, but I still love it, madly!

The air in our Dilli house is beginning to fill with the talk of Pakistan. My mother's cousin, Ziauddin Kirmani (ZDK) is constantly heard arguing for the Muslim League, while my father and a few of his politically active Congress-supporting friends argue for a united India.
Interesting factoid: ZDK edited and published, from Lucknow, a paper called Pakistan ... well before the name was coined for this country. Later, he also authored a biography of the Prophet, The Last Messenger with a Lasting Message - An Unconventional Study (recently re-published by his son, Tariq, and available at T2F). I'd strongly recommend it to those looking for a fresh approach, interesting references related to early Islamic history, and succinct biographical sketches of the Prophet's contemporaries ... but I must warn readers that certain sects have been upset about a couple of portrayals. The book is intriguingly dedicated "to those who seek the truth and are prepared to face it".
Soon, my father leaves for his new posting, packing Ummi and me off to to my maternal aunt in Calcutta, where her husband works for the Sea Customs. Also in Calcutta (now Kolkota) lives my paternal grandfather (of whom everyone I know is scared to death) ... more about him in some other post ... so it is a treat for all of us that my uncle is soon posted to Budge-Budge (now Baj-Baj), an oil pier 2o miles up the Hooghly. The distance from central Calcutta, though short, is mercifully not entirely conducive to my grandpa dropping in too frequently.

1947 arrives with bloodshed and riots in Calcutta, turning the Hooghly occasionally pink. My only playmate - Sattar, a family servant's child brought up by my aunt and just a bit older than I - spot a body or two floating up-river with the tide. We even have a rather gruesome encounter with a severed head, once.

My uncle, Asad Ali, and his close friend and neighbour, Shaukat Chacha, are employed in the Sea Customs because of their hockey prowess. They talk each day about how close "we" are to attaining Pakistan. My uncle and aunt are extremely fond of me. They have no child of their own and are like my second-set of parents. I even call them Ammi Jaan and Abbu Jaan, titles generally used to address one's own parents. In contrast to my parents, they are such fanatical Muslim Leaguers, they even alter my name. Not legally, of course, thank goodness. But in my books and notepads I am made to write Mohammad Zaheer Alam Kidvai Jinnahi! One of these books I still own: It is Vol. 2 of Hafeez Jallandhari's Shaahnaamaé Islam, which I used to once recite full throatedly to anyone who'd listen, thrilled at the descriptions of the bloody battles and the 'heroic' deeds of the early Muslims. Until I grew up ...

It's August 1947, now. Pakistan is a reality. Where we are is relatively safe but from conversations and the BBC news over the radio we hear that things are bad everywhere. Our family has to move out and head to Bombay from where we are to travel to Karachi, since Abbu Jan has 'opted' for West Pakistan. I suspect that the decision to not move to East Pakistan - so much closer to Calcutta and an obviously easier/safer move - was taken partly because my grandpa was migrating to Dhaka ;-) (Did I forget to tell you that my daada was also Abbu Jan's elder brother? Not too confusing a relationship, actually. Just a case of an uncle and a nephew, only 6 years apart, marrying 2 sisters!) 

Abi is to meet us in Bombay and take us 'home', to Delhi, while the others sail away to Karachi. I can hardly wait to get 'home'.

The long journey takes us through three train changes and a circuitous route which, for the life of me, I cannot recall. On the last leg of the journey we are told that, now, there are riots everywhere and trains are being stopped and attacked. People are being killed by one or the other party, depending upon your religion and theirs, casting aside the veneers of pretense about professed humaneness and love that followers on both sides boast incessantly about in less challenging times. I guess in order to not scare me and 2 other slightly older kids in the compartments the elders don't talk about any of this much. Or about anything. Their silence - specially that of Ummi and Ammi Jan, generally non-stop talkers :-) seems eveb scarier to Sattar and me.

At one station we have a surprise in store: A uniformed, beaming-as-always Gupta Cha bounds into the carriage and travels with us all the way to Bombay. At one point - when the train is stopped by a Hindu mob - he leans out of the window and announces that he and his large family travelling with him are Hindus and the only occupants of that compartment. Uniforms didn't get questioned, even then!
Allow me to digress, but this reminds me of a joke that became popular at the time of Ayub Khan's 1958 Martial Law. A man standing at the Indo-Pak border sees a horde of rabbits scurrying across to the Indian side from ours. He manages to stop and grab an old hobbling rabbit and asks him what they are running away from. Desperately trying to wiggle out of the man's grasp, the old rabbit says that the Pakistan Army has ordered the capture of all horses for its use. "But you're a rabbit", says the man. "Yeah. But ...", says the squirming rabbit, "have you ever tried to argue with a soldier?"
The other family in the compartment, obviously Muslim (one of the women has been reading a small Qurãn which is hidden away each time the train stops) looks worried. Gupta Cha walks up to the old man among them and says something, then summons a railway guard and takes a brass T-shaped key from him and locks the door from inside. Silent glances are exchanged. One of the women starts to weep. Ummi walks over and sits with her for the rest of the overnight journey.

We reach Bombay, safely. Or, at least half the train does. The second half has been de-linked in some ambush somewhere. I piece this together from hushed conversations. A lot of the luggage, too, is gone. Abbu Jan informs us that many compartments are chalk-marked 'MT'. I wonder for hours what 'MT' could mean, before realizing that he said 'empty'. My uncle and aunt lose nothing, though. All their stuff arrives safely, including their gramaphone and large record collection.

Ummi has just a small trunk of clothes that's been in the carriage with us. I tow an empty army-issue bistarband ("because it's Abi's!") and a small but heavy trunk with a couple of toys, a plate that I cherish to this day (it's segmentation seemed almost satirical years later in the wake of the 3-way partition, so it got dubbed among us cousins, who often fought to eat in it, the Partition Plate), a few small books, and the latest Khilona magazine. There are also 3 records (wrapped safely in a towel): a children's song by someone about a Dahi ba∂ay vaali, Omkarnath Ji's Kedam kee chhaya, and Caruso's La donna è mobile (all of which I loved listening to, every opportunity I got, to the bemusement of my elders).

Ummi and I are expecting to see all our stuff in Delhi, soon. I can't wait to get to our asli gramaphone, the one in our drawing room, with the huge golden horn ... and the strangely intriguing machine that Abi has inherited from his mother, one that plays music off amberol cylinders, of which we only have 4 (they are never touched, except when I plead really hard for listening to one of them). I am mesmerized as I hear and watch those cylinders that seem somehow more magical than the black records.

We meet Abi and find out that the house in Karolbagh has been looted and burnt. "My toys and the cylinders, too?", I ask, worried. But Ummi is now sobbing uncontrollably and no one is in the mood to answer my silly question. Soon, I cry, too, as Abi tells us more about the house. Although I am sure I did not really understand much, I do glean that our landlord, Rauf sahab, has been kidnapped and presumed killed. His wife - who was visiting someone else at that time - is missing.
Jump briefly to a scene ahead: 4 years later, we discover Mrs. Rauf in Karachi. Abi finds and recognizes her at a Police Station near Guru Mandir, where he is called "to sedate a mad woman". She had travelled across with other relations, we learn later from the people who come to 'claim' her back, and has gone raving mad over the years.)
Abi tells us he has spoken with senior persons in the congress party, specially Dr. Syed Mahmud (Nuzhat's maternal grandfather), a close friend and associate of Pandit Nehru.
Naana Jaan (as we called him) was much loved an admired by Abi, who had dedicated his book of essays and stories - Naee Paud - a few years earlier to him in remembrance of the student days at Aligarh when Nana Jan was a greatly admired activist.

Everyone has advised that we head out to Pakistan and return 'once the dust has settled'. (Vazira Zamindar's excellent book, The Long Partition, indicates that not only did many feel this way but some, in fact, did return to their old homelands**). I am stumped today, as I think back, at the naivete of all the Congress and Muslim League leaders, none of whom seemed to have had any inkling of the level of tragedy that this act of separation - still debated within our own country (and criticized, without even an attempt at understanding the reasons, in India) - would assume.

(To be continued ...)

* If you want a link from where you can download a wonderful audio file of Naushad's recollections of Saigal (well worth hearing), email me.

**POSTSCRIPT: Added 19th October 8:00 AM

I just came across some comments by a Mr. Ali Dada (Ref: Oct 18, 6.04PM) on the ATP site where this post has been included by its editors. While I have responded to his other bits at that site, I do wish to clarify one thing here because - judging by his conclusion - I did not, obviously, come across clearly enough on this one point: My reference to 'going back' was not only about people who crossed this way going back to India but something that took place in both countries after partition. (Mr. Dada obviously did not notice that I had said "return to their old homelands".) In fact the process was also ‘officially supported’ for a while on both sides of the border. Newspaper ads and other evidence, including some stats, for this are offered in Ms Zamindar’s book.

*** Another update (October 22nd) as a result of a comment by Gopi on ATP - and also pointed out in two emails.

First, Gopi: ... Such an interesting piece. Incidenally, the Zaibunnissa Street in Karachi is named after Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah, the firebrand editor of the Mirror who gave such a hard time to Ayub Khan in the last years of his presidentship. She was an Anglo-Indian (Bengali father and British mother) but married into a Punjabi family. Check out [this].

My response on AT: @Gopi - Thanks for the Zaibunnisa 'correction'. I know that was what was proposed and has been recorded by many. However, when some people raised an objection to naming it after her and said that her friends and family had 'pulled strings' to have this done, the authorities responded by pulling Priness Zaibunnisa out of their hat :-) ... but I guess your version, since it is now supported by Wikipedia, stands.

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